Broken Strings – by Olivia Buck

Sitting in the backyard herb garden of his mother’s house always comforted Vincent Banks. The smells of fresh basil and cilantro hung in the rafters of his nose and reminded him of simple things, like watering gardens and playing hopscotch with sidewalk chalk. He’d been enclosed in the picket-fenced plot for nearly half an hour, his sketchbook on his lap and the blue pen in his front pocket leaking steadily down his chest.

The drive down from school had been full of new wave chords and still-smoking cigarette butts, two hours of complete, solitary bliss before this fiasco of a gathering that he currently found himself a part of. Going home again was never as easy as leaving it behind, and Vincent reasoned that as long as this remained a fact, he should avoid the trip as often as he could. Countless Christmases had been spent abroad or with the current-girlfriend’s family. Thanksgivings had been glided over, birthdays largely ignored.

When he did come home, it was usually only for the weekend, and he spent an exorbitant amount of time staring at the decaying condition of his boots in the backyard of his childhood home. Even when he still lived there, he was always hiding. When he was small, it was so he had time to play with his army men, then again when he stole his father’s playboy at age thirteen, and again throughout high school when he discovered the joys of chain smoking. His mother always had an understanding of this, and never used to bother him about it. She always told him that they were similar, both with light brown hair and slightly earnest expressions, both introverted and pensive. His grandfather said they possessed the same weakness, but Vincent preferred to think of it as art over war, loving over fighting.

The watch on his wrist beeped twice. Two o’clock. Time to rally, time to eat carrots and celery dipped in ranch sauce and paint his face for social interaction. He rose to his feet, stretched his legs, and gazed around him. Across from the fenced herb garden was his mother’s famed rose bushes. There was a myriad of color lining this side of the yard, yellow, red, pink, white, and other hues which Vincent had no eye for. He remembered how his mother used to know all of the meanings behind them. Red roses, for example, meant passion. White was for purity. Pink, for innocence. Looking back, he found he had trouble bringing the other definitions to mind. As he moved past them, he suddenly thought how absurd it was that roses only had thorns to protect them from the harsh weather. How absurd that sometimes, human beings had even less than that.  He shook his head, chasing the thoughts from his mind, and climbed the steps of the house.

Inside, the hallways were crammed full of people, wearing mournful attire and clutching casseroles. When they caught his eye, they immediately gazed at the ground, as if they were afraid of what they would see in him.

“Banks!”

Vincent turned around to see the figure of Andrew Tillman pushing through the throng of people surrounding him. Andrew always had a polite, dreamy expression on his face, as though he couldn’t quite pull his head from the clouds. They weren’t quite friends in school, but Vincent was the only student that could tolerate Andrew’s constant chatter at one point.  In high school, Andrew had sometimes made cameos during Vincent’s chain-smoking sessions in the garden.

“Shit, I haven’t seen you in —” Andrew began, and then trailed off, looking thoughtful.
“Would be about two years,” Vincent clarified, the corners of his mouth turning up ever so slightly.

“Damn,” Andrew let out a slow stream of breath. “Being in this house again, it makes you remember the good times.”

Vincent felt his face settle into its usual apathetic lines. If Andrew considered high school the ‘good times,’ then Vincent needed to prepare himself for one of those “Yes, I’m living at my mom’s house for now until my silent Velcro patent come through” talks, the ones that made him crave the backlit coffee house in the city.

“How have you been?” he asked, fishing for small talk, hoping beyond hope that Andrew would do the same. Vincent was sorely mistaken on that point, for after only that small prompt, Andrew Tillman proceeded to wrap up every minor event that had occurred in the past two years. About halfway through the second year of Andrew living with his parents and dating a few high school girls, Vincent’s gaze drifted elsewhere.

He caught his father’s eye from the kitchen, and raised an eyebrow ever so slightly. Mr. Banks was a tall man, slightly balding, and was known in town as an “upstanding citizen” and “a man of true integrity.” In a room full of well-wishers, he seemed strangely isolated, up against the kitchen cabinets, his wife’s wedding ring between his fingers. To anyone else, he would have been a tragic figure, a man who had just lost his partner of twenty-five years, a retired man with nothing left to occupy himself. Their house seemed absurdly big to Vincent now — two stories, four bedrooms, and only one person left to fill it. Vincent wondered whether his father could still remember a time when their family was all together, making dinner, playing board games, arguing about which restaurant to dine at. It seemed like someone else’s childhood, stories of collecting caterpillars and barefoot summers, of running back to mother when she called them home.

Vincent looked away, turning his attention back to the prattling figure before him. Andrew was just finishing up the epic saga of his latest hiring and firing from the movie theater downtown. Vincent understood that the constant stream of verbiage was meant to detract from the reason why the entire neighborhood was in his living room. Meant to tear his thoughts away from his dead mother.

“Hey man, I gotta take a piss. You take care.” Vincent abruptly ended Andrew’s autobiography, clapped him casually on the shoulder, and moved from the living room into the kitchen. Hopefully liquor could be found there, and enough of it to remove the overwhelming sense of nostalgia permeating his mind. Mr. Banks had moved from his post by the cabinets to his office, shutting himself away from the mourners there to talk to him about what a great lady his wife was. Vincent envied him. As the husband, you could go off alone, you could force others to sympathize and leave you be. Vincent, as the black sheep son that took off nearly six years ago, needed to stick around, or else they would think him heartless.

He scanned the fridge and found nothing but a jug of milk and his mother’s leftover pot roast. It was probably only a week old. Still decent enough to be heated in the microwave, though no one would dare consume the last meal she had ever made. Sighing, he closed the door of the fridge and scanned the outside of it. Almost as if nothing had changed, memories from his childhood were stuck on the surface, pictures of family vacations, his eleventh grade report card, and his sister’s five-year-old art work.

“Hey stranger.”

Vincent turned and saw his Amanda sitting up on the granite counter, her usually tousled red hair neatly pulled back at the nape of her neck.

“Didn’t think I’d see you,” he said, turning to face her.

“You didn’t think I’d miss it, did you?” Silence. Both parties were avoiding the eyes of the other person.

“Where’s Beth?”

“Who knows?” Vincent answered. He looked back at the fridge, at Beth’s artwork, and felt a strange pang echo in his chest. “Last I heard, she was moving to Malibu, but that was almost three months ago.”

“Ah,” Amanda sighed. “Shouldn’t she …”

“My father tried to reach her. It’s funny how her phone never receives calls, only makes them,” Amanda blushed, which is what she did when she could think of nothing else to do.

“I’m sure glad to see you.”

It was Vincent’s turn to blush. The last time they had seen each other, words were vehemently exchanged, and promises of never speaking again were uttered. Messes had been left for someone else to clean up, wounds expected to heal without any stitches. “Yeah. It’s been a while.”

“I’m sorry about your mom.”

“Me too.” Vincent, for the first time, looked into her eyes. They were full of sadness, but also of something else. Maybe pity. Maybe love. In Vincent’s experience, those were often the same thing.

“I don’t know what to say to you,” she said after a pause.

This was probably for the best, as Vincent had no idea how to continue the fractured conversation they were having.

“You don’t need to …”

“I do. I really do. I have a lot to apologize for, Vincent, and I never told you …”

“It’s past its prime, Amanda,” Vincent interrupted “We should just let it go. I’m glad to see you, I hope Mark’s good.”
“He’s fine,” Amanda self-consciously touched the gold band on her left hand. “He’s home with the baby.”

“That’s fine. Boy or girl?”

“His name is Peter,” Vincent felt the bile in his stomach heave up. Amanda had a husband, Amanda had a baby named Peter, a baby that would someday grow into a man, who would have his own thoughts and feelings. This wasn’t happening. Vincent was sure of it.

“If you’ll, um, excuse me, I need to find my father.”

Amanda nodded, and slid down from the counter. She stepped closer to Vincent, and suddenly wrapped her arms around his waist. He automatically fell over her, a reflex that he thought he’d gotten rid of. They stood there like that, holding each other in the middle of his father’s kitchen, for an uncountable amount of seconds. He smelled the familiar scent of citrus in her hair, he crushed her to his chest, unaware of the strings inside him breaking a little more with each passing moment.

“I’ll be seeing you,” she pulled back, looking into his eyes.

“Maybe we’ll have a smoke sometime,” he answered, and the spell was broken. She was just lost love again, someone he could place into future drawings and poems, someone to look back on in twenty years and think about what might have been. She turned on her heel and plunged back into the throng of people, leaving Vincent again to helplessly watch her walk away. He straightened his tie and shook his head.

Vincent turned his attention toward the closed door of his father’s study. Without bothering to knock, he turned the handle and hurried in, shutting the door behind him. His father was sitting behind his desk, in that chair that always made Vincent think of mob bosses in gangster movies. His head was in his hands and he hadn’t looked up when the door had opened. Vincent wasn’t even sure if his father had heard him come in.

“Swell party, huh?”

His father looked up, his face a mask of quiet grief. “I suppose.”

“Dad, are you going back out there?” Vincent asked. Mr. Banks continued to stare off into space, and he tried again. “They’re all wondering where you are.”

“Did you read her obituary?”

“Sorry?”

“Your mother’s. They put it in the morning paper.”

“Oh.”

Mr. Banks shoved a piece of paper across the surface of the desk. It was a copy of the Daily Post, the announcements section. Vincent pretended to read it, but instead studied the lines of his father’s forehead. They were canyons and valleys, traveling up and down over his eyebrows. Vincent remembered tracing them with his fingers when he was small, dreaming of the day when he too would have them. Then perhaps he could be as wise as his father, as capable. Back then, everyone seemed like a giant.

“They call her a caring citizen, a devoted wife, and a doting mother,” his father said after a pregnant pause.

“So they do,” Vincent said, pretending to scan the words,

“They don’t mention how her hands smelled like peppermint,” his father said slowly, almost as if his mouth were full of honey.

“They don’t mention how she always burned the stuffing at Thanksgiving, or how she ran away from home when she was fifteen, or that her favorite color was lilac and how she could play three instruments very poorly and …” his voice broke. Vincent looked up, startled to see tears steadily streaming from behind his father’s glasses. The once giant man now looked very small indeed.

“Dad …”

“She wanted you to come and visit,” his father looked him in the eye for the first time. “She kept asking about where you were, even at the end.”

“I know,” Vincent looked at his shoes. “I know she did. I just couldn’t see her that way.”

His father merely nodded. “It was hard.”

Vincent desperately looked anywhere but his father’s eyes. He gazed at the leather-bound books on the shelves behind him, praying that their stories would carry him far away, to a place where things ended happily and mothers didn’t die and fathers and sons had something to say to each other.

“I’d better get out there and take a look,” his father used a handkerchief to mop his face, then stood up and skirted around the desk. “Come say goodbye before you leave.” He walked out without a backwards glance.

Vincent sank into the easy chair by the fireplace. He remembered his parents as they were ten years ago, he remembered the taste of his mother’s burned stuffing and the wrinkles that crept up in the corners of his father’s eyes when he tasted it. He remembered his little sister, before she had skipped town, running around the hardwood floors in rainbow socks, playing with the dog. He remembered lying in the wet earth of his mother’s backyard herb garden, counting the clouds rolling by. Sinking into the mud, where it is quiet and peaceful and home. He looked around, over his head, out of the window. This house seemed too big now. Now that there was only one of them left in it. It didn’t remind him of home anymore. Somewhere among the skipped visits, the broken promises, the unanswered phone calls, he had lost it.

There was nothing left of them now. Simply ghosts running around the halls, making a racket and keeping him awake at night. The garden was dying, the winter was seeping through the cracks, and nothing felt whole or real. His father couldn’t even stand to look him in the eye. His father could only dream of peppermint and lilac coating the insides of his brain and transporting him to a place where everything was as it used to be.

Vincent sat there, watching the sun slowly sink over the trees. He had read once that you couldn’t go home again. Nothing could ever be the way it was, change is inevitable.

But maybe this house could be more than walls full of ghosts. Maybe. Maybe he could help his father resurrect his children, bring back his wife, fill the house with music and laughter. Maybe he could make up for the visits not paid, for the flowers not sent, for the phone calls never made. All he had to do was take the first step.

Vincent’s could feel his broken strings barely starting to mend as he got up from his chair by the fire. He could do it. He could mend his strings, his father’s strings, even Beth’s strings, if they could find her. Maybe they could figure out how to weave it all together, create a tapestry or repair the slashes made in the old one. He opened up the door and quietly walked out after his father.